Shift World Chapter 9
by Christopher W Gamsby
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Karp and Nort returned to their world. Karp wasn’t planning on spending any significant amount of time in the Shift World for the foreseeable future. Although the journey to the provincial capital had taken close to eight months in the Shift World, Karp had only spent two weeks in her own world. Now Karp and Nort walked to the general store to talk to Slart.
˝so it's been about two months since the festival?”
˝i think we should take a few weeks here and then head off.”
˝well, the mandrake deaths have been happening north of here, so that's where we'll go and ask around.”
When Nort and Karp arrived at the store, Slart was looking under the counter. She recoiled in surprise when she looked up and saw two people standing before her.
˝can you order about six months' worth of food for me?”
Slart giggled. ˝Sure, we uh have plenty of money now.”
˝open up the vault.”
Slart walked to the end of the counter, unlocked the stone vault door with a small steel key and dragged open the door. Karp rounded the corner, and something scurried in one of the under-counter cabinets. A pair of eyes peered from a cracked-open cabinet door.
˝she still does that?”
˝Uh, yeah...she's STILL doing that since you saw her do it yesterday.”
˝right... what a funny paradox. she's afraid to be without you but hides when any other person comes near.”
˝You said that yesterday too.”
Karp's heart sank. Trying to remember every joke or comment from months ago was impossible, and now she worried Slart found her trite. Karp entered the vault and returned her extra whip to the Shift World.
Two weeks later, Karp and Nort stood under the northern gate wearing long, hooded cloaks. Slart and Lark were there to see them off on their journey. Lark had warmed to Karp and Nort and now behaved a little more like a young woman and less like a scared child.
˝you take care of her now.”
Karp addressed Lark, but Lark just gave her a quizzical look since Karp's even tone and lack of inflection made telling when she was joking difficult.
˝You take care of him now, hmm?”
Slart stood with her hands on her hips, bobbing her head. Nort turned red.
˝Hey! I can take care of myself now!”
Slart and Karp traded glances, and Nort turned even redder. Lark giggled. She had grown fond of teasing Nort and watching him react to others' gibes. Slart looked down at Lark.
˝Looks like that, uh, serving girl might have some competition in a few years.”
Slart moved her gaze from Lark to Nort and gave him a wink. Now Nort was annoyed, not embarrassed. He placed his hand on his temple and shook his head. Lark turned away and moved to face the three of them but quickly turned back, evidently afraid her emotions were too transparent. Karp faced Slart.
˝well, we've managed to embarrass the kids. i think it's time to go.”
Nort and Karp turned up the road and waved over their shoulders as they traveled the main highway back to the milling town north of The Bog Djinn's castle. On the way, they camped in covered clearings whenever possible, but they also needed to camp on the side of the road several times too. On those days, Karp slept in the Shift World and stood vigil until Nort woke the next morning. Nort had practiced sneaking during the two weeks Karp rested in the village during her prolonged shift, during the weeks when Karp was preparing for the journey, and during the week they had spent traveling to the mill town. By the time they reached the inn, Nort moved as deftly as Wili. Nort's ability to learn still amazed Karp.
Nort and Karp slipped into the inn and tavern behind a large man. They shadowed him until he turned to join a table. Karp and Nort approached the tavern's counter, but the bartender faced the other way, stacking mugs at the base of a keg. Karp tapped the bar with a metal plate attached to the back of her hand. The wood cracked like the sound made from the tip of a whip. The bartender jumped back, spun, and clutched the table covered in mugs. One mug tumbled to the ground. All conversation in the tavern stopped as the patrons watched the spectacle in the front.
˝i need two rooms, two dinners, and two mugs of ale.”
The bartender, Sodil, eased, and the patrons continued conversing once they realized the situation's banality.
˝You scared me something awful.”
The bartender pulled a small book from under the counter, opened to a marker, and glanced over the pages.
˝We have two empty rooms, but they are the last two, so it will cost extra.”
Karp removed her hood.
˝the last two rooms? what number customers are we to get the last ones today?”
The bartender chuckled.
˝I was so surprised by the near heart attack I didn't even recognize you, Scor...”
Karp raised her hand to stop him and glanced around to see if anyone had reacted.
˝Of course... I'm so sorry... Here are two rooms for you at the standard rates for friends of the boss. Tonight we have mutton slow-cooking on the brazier and potatoes. We also have a spiced pumpkin ale.”
Nort perked up at hearing about the pumpkin ale.
˝Why don't we stay at inns more often?”
Karp didn't dignify the question with a response. She hunched over the counter and spoke in a low voice.
˝have you heard anything about the mandrake recently?”
˝There have been strange rumors floating around. I haven't heard anything about husks appearing, but people have been talking about abandoned and empty keeps. They say the lords and all their servants just pack up and leave. Then, they trade all their valuables for weapons, armor, and food.”
˝why would they do that?”
˝I think a storm's coming and one far worse than what happened at the first council!”
˝do you think they are scared and running away?”
˝The Lion run away? The lord of the Grain Fort is no coward. If he left his keep empty, it was to fight.”
The Lion ruled a manor two weeks north of the milling town as a minor lord. The Lion's name came from his yellow armor and belligerent disposition. Fertile farmland surrounded the Grain Fort, and harvested food paid most of the taxes. The Lion oversaw the storing and distribution of fees to governmental bodies. Karp finished her ale while contemplating Sodil's words and motioned for the next round.
˝we'll be sitting near the throwing board. please bring the food and another round of drinks in about thirty minutes.”
Sodil nodded. Karp and Nort headed to an empty table near the throwing board. Karp knew the board well because every year, she and Slart traveled to the milling town for a throwing board competition. Drawings of monsters, both real and imaginary, covered the face of the board, depicting snakes, wolves, spiders, cartoonish devils, asaghi, and even a pair of giant dragons breathing fire at each other in the center. Chimeric animals, like one with a lion's head but the body of a bear and the stinger of a scorpion, played a role in competitors’ games.
˝nort, does that book of yours say anything about animals?”
˝I haven't read it in a few days, but I think there is some mention of animals. I don't have it here, though.”
˝sit perfectly still.”
Karp reached from under her hooded cloak and handed the book to Nort. He flipped through the pages.
˝This page says 'bestiary' and has the description of weird or dangerous animals. What do you want to know?”
˝check to see if there is a description of that.”
Karp pointed to the bear-like chimera. Nort slowly and clumsily read the various scripts in the tome. Several minutes later, he found the answer.
˝Here is something. In world #10, there is a creature with the head of a lion, body of a bear, and scorpion stinger. There are notes after it. In world #14, these creatures don't have a stinger. In world #16, they don't have manes, and in world #18, their heads are the same color as the bodies.”
Karp sipped her beer.
˝i wonder how much of the fiction of this world is really just a record of another world. what about that one?”
Karp pointed to a hydra. The beast's gray, scaled body supported four necks. Each neck's head dripped a green liquid from pointed fangs.
˝There is one in world #4, but by world #10, they are just big snakes.”
˝what about ordinary animals? i don't know, like sheep?”
˝They are ugly with hairless, drooping skin, why would me from the other worlds write about them?”
A stranger in steel chainmail with four steel daggers attached to his belt approached Karp. Nort leaped up and grabbed the man's shoulder.
˝Hold on! I just want to challenge the lady to a game. Isn't that why you sat near the throwing board?”
Nort looked over at Karp, who was just amused by the whole situation. Karp stumbled a little when rising to her feet and steadied herself on the table. That accidental misstep brought out old bad habits.
˝luks like yu might hab an adbantage in dis round.”
˝Ha ha, I'll go easy on you.”
Karp and the man moved to the throwing board.
˝wut kind ob gaime, due yu wantta pleigh?”
˝How about we do riddles?”
˝ah...k...howbout...we...bet...1 stil peis for phun?”
˝How about ten steel pieces?”
˝hmmmm...I dun't hab thet much!”
˝Well, I have the money right here. If you lose, you can pay me back in a different way...”
Karp was a little taken aback by the uncouth man but found her mouth responding against her will.
˝how bout fitty?”
˝I don't think you can afford that.”
˝i no it lot ob werk...hic...but I be hir al week.”
The man thought and grinned. He looked back at Nort, who was watching everything, sipping ale with his feet on the table. Nort raised his mug and motioned for the bartender to bring another.
˝I don't think your husband would like this bet very much...”
The bartender brought a fresh mug to Nort, who pointed to Karp and the man standing at the board.
˝Fine, but you better not renege.”
The bartender approached Karp and the man.
˝What are you betting?”
Karp swayed and held up five fingers on one hand and zero fingers on the other. The man looked uncomfortable.
˝Everyone quiet! QUIET! We have a high-stakes game!”
The tavern hushed, and everyone turned their attention to the throwing board, but the man didn't want attention. He nervously looked at Nort, who raised his mug, laughed, and took another sip.
˝What's the game?”
Karp looked over at the man, who suddenly seemed shy. He sulked over to the bartender and whispered a riddle.
˝First Riddle: 'Stop the friends from fighting in a fair way.'”
˝oh...nose... dat's too tuff!”
Karp stumbled to the throwing line and drew a yellow knife from her buckler and threw it in one fluid motion. The blade flew from under her cloak and struck between the dragons at the point where their flames touched. Sodil nodded and addressed the man.
˝Is that right?”
The man's head sunk, and he nodded yes. Karp shuffled over to the bartender, wrapped herself around his shoulders, and whispered in his ear.
˝The second riddle: 'Whenever you kill one, there's always more.'”
The man walked to the throwing line and surveyed the board. He removed one of his four daggers and stood at the edge, rocking back and forth. He slightly bent his knees, wavered, and moved the blade back and forth. The crowd booed. The man threw it. The dagger landed, barely touching the hydra's little head. The man released his breath.
˝Oh, look, a tie! Well, it was fun, but we'll end it here.”
˝NOPE! you're wrong!”
The man looked at Karp, looked at the board, and couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Karp strolled to the throwing line. A dagger flew from under her cloak and hit an ant crossing the board.
The crowd laughed and cheered.
˝What? No! You tricked me!”
The man pulled out one of his daggers. Nort laughed, then took another sip. Karp walked up, drew her dragon fire dagger, looped it up, and cut his dagger's blade off at the handle.
˝you better not renege...”
The man stared at the handle, perplexed.
˝I don't have that much.”
Karp removed her two daggers from the board and put them back in her buckler. She took his steel dagger from the board and held it up.
˝i'll take this then.”
The dagger disappeared.
The man turned to leave, but several of the patrons and Sodil held a long piece of rope and stopped him.
˝Oh, no. You'll see what we do to people that don't carry out their bets!”
The mob grabbed the man, hogtied him, and hung him from the rafters. Sodil sauntered over to Karp and Nort's table.
˝I don't think that guy had any clue who he was facing. I also don't get why he bet so much if he was so bad!”
˝he assumed way too much.”
˝I'm surprised you bet so much. Normally you only take an iron or two from people...”
˝he deserved it.”
˝Considering Slart has taken first, and you've taken second every single year, it's not surprising he lost in one round.”
˝i was surprised that he used my own riddle against me, so i beat him with one of slart's.”
The challenger struggled from the rafters. A muzzle muffled his words and pathetic grunts. The man's eyes reddened, and he glanced in Karp's direction before giving up. The man slacked, resigning himself to his punishment.
Karp and Nort traveled east by northeast along the main trade route. After two days, the road wound through a dense forest of massive oak trees. Residents of the milling town felled these trees for a living, and for the last two days, workers had consistently traversed the road. Most woodcutters either disappeared into the woods with axes and saws or large groups of men set up massive wagons on the roadside and worked in unison to drag logs from the woods. The workers hauled the lumber back to the milling town to be sawed and finished into usable pieces. Caravans brought the boards, planks, and pillars along the main trade route to the lumber depot, and depot workers divided the wood into shipments for construction, manufacturing, and royal consumption.
By Karp and North’s fourth day of travel, the lumber workers and log transports disappeared, but Karp and Nort passed a lumber convoy. On the fifth day, only a man carrying an ax and wearing a long riding coat traversed the road nearby. By day six, even that man disappeared. Karp and Nort reached an intersection on the seventh day. The main trade route continued east, and a large yellow gate painted with brown wheat stalks straddled the road heading north toward the Grain Fort. The gate represented The Lion, but the Grain Fort was still another week's worth of travel.
Shortly up the road from The Lion's Gate sat a village built around a convoy way station much like the Village of the Traitor's Tavern. The Village of the Lion's Gate was far less impressive than Nort and Karp's home though. The bog-standard inn lacked the grandeur of the converted keep that was the Traitor's Tavern Inn. This village didn't have a nearby trading compound either, and the area only had a modest general store, a few convoy staging areas, and a half dozen food stalls.
Karp and Nort arrived in the evening and immediately found the general store. Furniture, clothing, embroidery, and other non-metallic valuables packed the store to the brim. Karp pushed her way to the front and addressed a worker at the counter.
˝are you the owner?”
The man's big smile almost seemed out of place, and Karp couldn't help but wonder if he was daft.
˝where did all this come from?”
The man's smile drained at Karp's accusatory tone.
˝I traded for it, of course! Luck sure smiled on me that day!”
˝traded with who?”
˝The Lion. He came two weeks ago and offered to trade for all the weapons and food I had.”
˝what exactly did you trade for all this?”
˝Well...a few yellow daggers, some iron chainmail, steel shield, and a few years’ worth of preserves, nuts, fruit...umm...nothing else of note really.”
˝you spoke to the lion?”
˝Of course not! He wouldn't speak to someone like me! I spoke to one of his traders while he sat on his horse outside. Are you interested in buying anything? Come look at this desk.”
The man ushered them to a medium-sized oak writing desk sitting in the corner. The bureau had one large sliding drawer filled with paper and charcoal. Scratches and dents disfigured the desk's face, and there were no etchings or embellishments of any kind.
˝This was the lord's desk. He'd sit here during important meetings and conduct business with other lords! If you went to the capital to purchase one of these, it would cost you five hundred steel pieces, but I'll sell it to you for two hundred!”
Nort and Karp eyed each other, then focused back on the store owner.
˝Oh, honey, wouldn't this picture just look amazing in our son's room?”
Nort lifted the end of an old embroidered scroll that depicted a lion pouncing on a gazelle in an open field dotted with wheat stalks. The owner wasn't pleased with the turn of the conversation.
˝Well, if you purchase the desk, I'll throw in the scroll for your son!”
˝i don't know, dear. it's all old and tattered; it looks like garbage.”
˝I know, sweetie, but little Korg will probably just tear it up anyway... How about I give you one steel piece for this?”
The owner would rather sell the desk for two hundred, but a sale was a sale.
˝Tell you what. Give me two steel pieces, and it's yours.”
Karp put her hand on Nort's upper arm and shook her head. Nort put his hand on his chin and sighed deeply.
˝You can't go any lower?”
˝Sorry, I can't.”
Nort sighed and lowered his head.
˝Alright, I'll take it. We'll just have to skip meals for a few days, that's all.”
Karp put her hand on her forehead and threw her head and body back with an exacerbated sigh. Nort picked up the scroll, removed two steel pieces from his coin purse, and gave them to the shop owner. Karp and Nort exited the store and lost control of their laughter the moment the door shut. They walked to the side of the building, and Nort handed the scroll to Karp. It disappeared.
They headed over to the tavern and inn to secure dinner for the evening and two rooms for the night. The pair pushed through swinging double doors and entered the bar. They bought two mugs of an orange wheat lager and sat at a table near the throwing board.
˝so, 'honey,' what was that all about?”
˝That guy had no clue what anything was worth.”
˝Yeah, when he said that desk was the lord's desk and worth five hundred steel, I wasn't sure if he was trying to scam us or didn't know what it was.”
˝what was it?”
˝Probably a child's writing desk, maybe it even belonged to a servant. It would sell new for a hundred pieces, let alone an old beat-up one like that. So, I wanted to test him. That scroll is made of cloth and has enough thread to stitch one hundred pairs of clothing. So, that alone made it the most expensive thing in there, but since someone with a lot of skill must have made it, to the right collector, it would be worth more than everything else combined. I'm a little surprised that the shop owner didn't know that. I'm shocked that The Lion didn't know what it was worth.”
˝maybe he was just really desperate... and it’s nice to see you did learn something from slart!”
Karp and Nort finished their round of drinks and then had a few more. The night was still young when they retired to their rooms, and Karp initially had trouble sleeping but eventually drifted into a slumber. A floorboard creaked in the hall, though, and she awoke. Footsteps continued, stopped, and then exited the hallway. Karp tried sleeping again after that, but she was wide awake. Someone paced by her room a few more times before morning. Something felt off, but Karp couldn't quite put her finger on what it was.